Which is Better High or Low Carbs?
Max Carmody, MSc
There has been evidence showing that low carb diets are better than high carbs for weight loss, evidence that high carb diets are better, and evidence that they are roughly the same, so it is difficult to say conclusively which is better.
What are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates (carbs) are a type of macronutrient, the other types of nutrients are protein, and fat. Macronutrients are simply nutrients that your body needs in large amounts to function. Carbs are made up of sugar, starches, and fiber. Your digestive system breaks down carbs into glucose, or blood sugar. The bloodstream absorbs glucose, and uses it as energy to fuel the body. There are different types of carbs, simple carbs, and complex carbs. Simple carbs include sugar, and in addition to things like table sugars and syrups, are also in fruits and milk. Complex carbs tend to be things like whole grains. Simple carbs provide your body with short bursts of energy, but complex carbs take longer for the body to break down, and are a longer lasting energy source.
Low Carb Diets?
Low carb diets, as the name suggests, involve lowering the amount of carbs that you consume. Generally, consuming less than 130 grams of carbs per day is considered to be a low carb diet. Low carb diets can go as long as 20-50 grams of carbs a day however, for example on the keto diet you are trying to consume under 50 grams of carbs a day. As you lower your carbohydrate intake, you typically make it up by consuming more of the other macronutrients, protein and fat.
Low Carb diets are considered to have many health benefits. They have been proven in many studies to lead to more weight loss than a low fat diet, for at least the first 6 months of the diet. Low carb diets which emphasize healthy sources of fat, protein, and carbs may help lower the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. When you are on a low carb diet you are not typically too hungry, as fat and protein is much more filling. If you would like to find out if you can safely do both a low carb, and low fat diet at the same time, I’ve written an article about it that you can read here.
High Carb Diets
Just as a low carb diet is low in carbs, a high carb diet is obviously high in carbs. The average American’s diet tends to be made up of 50% carbs. This would be within the recommended limits, however the average American diet is too high in refined carbs. These refined carbs are refined grains and sugars that have been stripped of all fiber, bran, and nutrients. These include things like pizza dough, white bread, white rice, and sweet desserts. This is one type of higher carb diet.
However, not all high carb diets are as unhealthy as the standard American diet. Low carb diets these days are more popular than high carb diets, you do not hear about somebody specifically embarking on a high carb diet as often. A lot of the time when somebody does go on a specific diet that is high in carbs, it is also low in fat, and they are making up for the fat. It doesn’t have to be, however.
Some relatively high carb diets are healthy, such as the Mediterranean diet. This diet is not extremely high carb, but rather involves about 50% of your daily macronutrients coming from carbs. This is often considered to be the healthiest long term diet. Research supports that the Mediterranean diet may prevent cardiovascular diseases, increase lifespan, and lead to healthy aging. However, there is some evidence that high carb diets with over 60% of daily nutrition coming from carbs, that consist of mostly high glycemic carbs have detrimental metabolic effects, and can increase insulin resistance. High glycemic carbs are those that are broken down your body quickly to case a rapid increase in blood sugar, these include things like sugar and foods with a lot of sugar, white bread, and white rice.
Which is Better?
Personally, I prefer a low carb diet to a high carb diet. I feel like I lose weight very quickly on low carb diets. And I am never hungry. I didn’t explicitly do “high carb” diets, but I did use to do calorie counting as a diet, and was eating a lot more carbs than I am now, at least a moderate amount of carbs. This way, I lost weight much slower, and was hungry all the time. But just because I personally prefer low carb diets, does not necessarily mean that they are “better”.
A high carb diet usually tends to be low fat, so I will talk about low carb vs. low fat comparisons. In a period of 6 months, in one study following people with severe obesity, people on low carb diets lost an average of 12.8 pounds, and people on low fat (and high carb) diets only lost 4.2 pounds. That means that people on the low carb diet lost about 3x more weight.
In another study comparing both low and high carb diets, the calorie value was kept the same. After 12 weeks, there was no significant difference between the high carb and low carb diets in terms of weight loss. But it was believed that the low carbohydrate diet could be favorable in the long run considering the greater improvement of fasting blood insulin, the glucose/insulin ratio, and blood triglycerides. However, keep in mind that the caloric value was kept the same in this study, and often on a low carb diet you will be consuming fewer calories because protein and fat are more filling than carbs.
In a study by the U.S. department of Agriculture, researchers discovered that high carb, low fats diets make people more likely to have a low BMI. So far, we have seen evidence that high carb diets are better, and evidence that low carb diets are better. The research is mixed, so although I personally prefer low carb, it is difficult, or impossible to say which one is actually better. It is likely that different diets work better for different people.
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